Interview: Leonard Ndubueze Mbah and ‘Emergent Masculinities’

Leonard Ndubueze Mbah is a Ph.D. student in African history at Michigan State University. In 2011 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Emergent Masculinities: The Gendered Struggle for Power in Southeastern Nigeria, 1850-1920,’ supervised by Dr. Nwando Achebe. We contacted Mbah to learn more about his project investigating the shifting historical dynamics of gendered power in Ohafia, Nigeria.


Let’s begin by setting the historical scene for your research. What was the hypothesis that you set out to test?

Growing up as a child, I heard folktales of the ‘in’-famous “Abam warriors” (a term used to refer to Ohafia and Abam warriors) who fought with obejiri or what the Ohafia call akparaja (machetes), which they hauled into their enemy forces, magically decapitating several heads at once. In these folktales, Abam warriors personify two identities: dimkpa (brave warrior) and dibia (medicine men). In college at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, I experienced two phenomena that would shape my dissertation focus. The first was the “Bakasi Boys Movement,” which was a young men’s vigilante organization. The Bakasi Boys held public spectacles where they executed criminals through decapitation. In these scenarios, they also displayed bravado: the vigilantes landed powerful machete blows on each other and fired gun-shots at each other to show that they were spiritually immune to physical injury. This immunity display became known as oda eshi (spiritual bullet-proof). The Bakasi Boys (many of whom came from the Ohafia region) sought to resurrect two prototypes of masculinities from pre-colonial Igbo society: the medicine-man (dibia), and the warrior (dimkpa). I was curious of any possible connections between traditional masculinities and these atavistic performances. Second, I witnessed the Ohafia war dance (iri aha). The lead dancer carried a basket of human skulls, the dancers were dressed as fierce warriors, they moved like leopards, and they mimed the act of cutting off human heads and stowing them in an imaginary pouch. The war dancers portrayed Ohafia as a land of brave warriors, an image that resonated with the folk-tales I heard growing up. Indeed, this was the dominant social image of the society: a society of warriors without women. The status of women in the society was left to the imagination.

Mural Painting at Obu Ndi Ezera, Asaga Village, Ohafia. Photographed by Interviewee.

However, I soon began to make acquaintances with Ohafia people: fellow students and college professors. I learnt that the Ohafia-Igbo are the only society in Southeastern Nigeria with a matrilineal kinship system, which placed women in an especial position of socio-political significance: in the acquisition and distribution of property, in marriage and divorce practices, in the ownership of children, and in the practice of a gendered socio-political system. My friends told me that Ohafia women are very powerful and that in fact, the men feared them. I wanted to understand what seemed to be a phenomenal contradiction: brave warriors afraid of their women. Like British colonial officials astounded by the Igbo Women’s War of 1929, I wondered, “Who were these Ohafia women?” In published literature on the Ohafia-Igbo the major historical outlines are the Atlantic slave trade and British colonialism. The literature give a sense of why Ohafia was a militant society, mention their role in slave production and their relationship with the Aro slaving oligarchy, as well as the structural workings of the kinship system, but none of them examine female power and authority. None of them account for internal factors of historical change in the society. All of them suggest that the only form of masculinity in the society was the warrior and that an adult male was considered a “man” only when he went to war and cut a human head in battle. But I had also read that the British colonial government abolished head-hunting in the late 19th century.

So I had a lot of questions: Are there no more “men” in Ohafia-Igbo society because of the cessation of head-hunting? Was the warrior the only form of masculinity in pre-colonial Ohafia-Igbo society? Were Ohafia-Igbo women really powerful, socio-politically and economically? Were they subservient or complementary to men, or were they more powerful? After two pre-dissertation research trips in the summer months of 2009 and 2010, it became clear that the meaning of “cutting a head” had changed over time: In the era of head-hunting (a practice that developed as a psychological means of defense for a society surrounded by truculent non-Igbo neighbors), adult males were conferred the title of ufiem (masculinity) when they went to war and returned with a human head. In the course of the Atlantic slave trade, men who captured slaves alive were said to have “cut a head” and conferred ufiem. Upon British colonial rule, Ohafia men who returned home with a school certificate were also said to have “cut a head,” as were those who returned from civil service with insignia of modernity and success. Second, besides the warrior, ufiem was a diffuse concept immanent and manifest in leisure practices, economic endeavors (trade, agriculture, hunting, and traditional medicare) and political activities, and was contested daily in the society’s kinship relations and gendered politics. Third, besides being the major breadwinners of their families and forging a matriarchy of matrilineal ancestresses, Ohafia-Igbo women possessed the most powerful socio-political institution in southeastern Nigeria — Ikpirikpe Ndi Iyom — a women’s council, combining the powers of umuada (assembly of daughters), otu inyomdi (assembly of wives), and a “female king.” Moreover, they performed political strategies that were more effective and powerful than those of their men, and commanded greater political obeisance from both men and women.

Still, I had more questions: What kind of structures enabled Ohafia-Igbo women to achieve greater measures of power than men during the pre-colonial epoch, and what did this portend for men? What is the indigenous logic of masculinity in Ohafia-Igbo society? How was ufiem — the beliefs, attitudes, behavior and actions that define the gender category of men — constructed and how did understandings of ufiem change over time? Were all forms of ufiem equal or were some more powerful than others? Did any form of ufiem attain a hegemonic character and how? What were the relationships between the constructions of masculinities through institutionalization and performance, and female performance of political power? How did Igbo men appropriate new ideas, opportunities, and institutions introduced through the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism to inform their contestation of female dominance?  What forms did gendered power struggles take in Ohafia-Igbo society, and what were their consequences? What were the internal forces of social change in the society? How do we talk about individual African innovation, adaptation, and agency in the face of the Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism without bellying the ills of these capitalist interventions? Yet, how do we account for the impact of European exploitation of Africans without relying on assumptions of aggregated African communities, bound by collective identities, and lacking in self-aware individual subjects? What were the dynamic relationships between indvidual agency and social constraints?


Your project  combined archival work in colonial-era records with more traditional ethnographic fieldwork. What were the challenges or opportunities that arose from this program? Was there any difficultly transitioning from one method/frame of mind to the other?

In order to center Ohafia-Igbo voices in my work, I began my dissertation research with five months of ethnographic fieldwork in Ohafia, followed by three months of archival research at the British National Archives Kew and the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh; then concluded with four more more months of ethnographic fieldwork in Ohafia, in order to answer new questions raised by European records. What happened then was that my core research interests and questions became rigorously informed by local historical topics, time-frames, and perspectives. Rather than trying to find evidence of European discourses of Ohafia in the field, I was trying to find collaborative evidence of Ohafia people’s history in European archives. I was better placed to read missionary and colonial records with a critical Ohafia lens.

The one challenge I was conscious of at the beginning of my dissertation research is the silence in both published literature and archival sources of Ohafia female voices. My pre-dissertation research experiences showed that the best way to overcome this was not only conducting oral interviews with Ohafia-Igbo women, but observing and recording their agricultural, ritual, and political activities. In fact, Ohafia women often transformed the interview sessions into public performances, where younger women, children, and men constituted an awed audience. They danced and teased and cajoled, re-emphasizing their power to “teach men lessons” when necessary. As a male, gaining access to women’s circles was a methodological challenge.

Two factors helped: I had good recommendations and assistance from Ohafia friends and mentors including college professors who are well-respected in the community, especially Prof. Onwuka Njoku. Second, many of the women who knew me from 2009 and 2010, facilitated more connections between 2011 and 2012, and Ohafia-Igbo women demonstrated an acceptance of the interview encounter as an opportunity to emphasize and re-enact their consciousness of past female power and authority in their society. Also, I was willing to be vulnerable: interview sessions with older women or female court sessions were a times discomforting because, the women consciously made use of explicit language, and relished the disquieted look on my face. Indeed, the gravest offense in the society is the verbal or physical violation of the sacred female body or sexuality and women’s assertion of their ability to name that which ought not be so openly named, served to redefine the situational power dynamics of the interview process.

The second challenge was one that academic reviewers of my Wenner-Gren dissertation proposal and later, Ohafia collaborators themselves agreed on, namely: the need to move beyond established historical research methods to historicize a period (1850-1920) in Southern Nigeria for which archive sources are thin, by relying on oral histories, current ritual practices, emic interpretations of artifacts (material culture), and linguistic traces such as idioms and proverbs. One of the dibia (medicine-man) without whose guidance my ethnographic work would have failed told me blatantly that “all oral statements are false and politically informed” and that if I relied on them, the Ohafia community would award my dissertation “okpa okuko” (‘chicken legs’) — an image that translates to woeful failure. According to this dibia, to know the real “truth,” I must painstakingly record present-day practices and then seek indigenous interpretations. When I pointed out based on local knowledge that some of the current practices have changed, my dibia collaborator assured me that the present practices embodied both the past and the present.

Thus, I was able to raise questions that were culturally sensible and academically informative by first witnessing the re-enactments of practices such as ije ubi (a ritual journey to the farm where representatives of lineages are arranged in order of seniority and village functions) during the new yam festival, various dibia initiation and masculinity performances, gendering leisure activities such as igba nnunu (to kill a bird — the first “head” a boy-child “cuts”), ibo ezi (women’s mass desertion of their homes in protest), ikpo mgbogho (women’s punitive death sentence — physico-ritual desecration of an individual and his or her homestead, as well as “sitting on a man”), and female ritual ceremonies like uzo-iyi  (women’s purification of the land and holding of a supreme court of public opinion where young virgin-girls served as oracles and judges) and ije akpaka — when women are men (women’s ritual declaration of and embarkation on warfare, which authorized men to go to war.) Similarly, iri-aha (war dance) is both a performance of history and an embodiment of current events. It is a narrative of the past and a celebration of present accomplishments of ufiem. It continues to reinforce the social perception of Ohafia as a land of noble warriors and facilitates the equation of Ohafia ethnicity with warrior masculinity.


One aspect of your interdisciplinary approach was an analysis of Ohafia material culture, specifically “ududu” ancestral pots and “obu” meeting houses. In what ways do these objects and their histories reflect the shifting dynamics of gendered power?

at Obu Ndi Idika, Mgbaga, Elu Village, Ohafia. Photographed by Interviewee.

Ohafia material culture complexes tell a story of their own. They include patrilineage obu houses, matrilineal and patrilineal ududu ancestral pots, the ikoro wooden slit drum in the center of the village-square, and shrines and deities such as onu-agba and kamalu. These artifacts define a geography of masculinity inscribed within the landscape itself. This geography is historically constructed and constantly relived and reinforced in the daily practices of the people, and the processes of its construction and reinvention are gendered. The obu, ikoro, and onu-agba constituted public platforms for the performance of masculinity. They symbolize the conscious efforts of the dominant ufiem (the warrior masculinities) to delineate a “public sector” of male domination, and simultaneously set the cultural limits which ujo (non-ufiem or cowards) and female masculinities could never attain. A woman could perform various forms of ufiem but she could never dance before the ikoro, the ikoro would not be sounded upon her death,  and she could never pass through the onu-agba — she could never realize full manhood. Women’s lack of access to onu-agba — a mound of stones hedged in by two trees, may at first appear to have no apparent gendered power implications; however, its continued existence highlight the tenacious inscription of gender ideologies within the landscape itself — ideologies which came to shape social and academic notions of female political “invisibility” and “inferiority” vis-a-vis men.

Men’s appropriation of public spaces for the performance of ufiem and women’s transformation of public spaces into the most effective platforms for registering political dissent and asserting political authority over both men and women, indicate that the public space was an arena of gendered contestation, and thus an apposite context for studying identity formation and the gendered struggle for power. Moreover, as much as men and women set up gendered barriers, these were equally negotiated. Women sometimes violated male gender delineations, not because they wanted to become men per se, but because it facilitated their social mobility. For instance, Madam Chief Otuwe Agwu had no female decsendant, which meant that there would be no woman to raise a matrilineal ududu monument for her, upon her death. To overcome this challenge, she became a dibia (what was then an exclusively-male institution), performed various masculinities associated with wealth, married a wife (she became a female husband), and had male and female children who bore her name. Thus, she prevented her matriline from dying off, and created a new patriline.

The patrilineage obu was usually located at the entrance of the residential units, which have an outlay of a compact military garrison, reflecting a history of militancy and the constant need for defense during the period of the Atlantic slave trade. The obu was a male domain: it was the abode of ancestral ufiem, where their ududu were kept, and each ududu had a name. The obu was a site for the organization of warfare and the meeting of male elders; it housed the instruments of various exclusively-male secret societies, which were the institutions of masculinity in the society; and it was a major platform for the performance of ufiem by ite odo(an exclusively male, warrior

at Obu Ndi Idika, Mgbaga, Elu Village, Ohafia. Photographed by Interviewee.

society) members. The obu was a site of ufiem performance. The wall decor and mural paintings emphaszied various masculinities — the brave warrior, the hunter, the dibia, the ezie-ikoro (ikoro master), and symbols of exclusively male secret societies. Indeed, the masculinization of the patrilineage obu was in direct structural opposition to the absence of matrilineal residential compound units, and its location in the center of the village defined a public sector of male “visibility.” Ohafia obu houses such as obu nkwa played a key oracular role in slave production, and upon abolition, when the glut of slaves on the domestic market led to unprecedented abuse of slaves, the obu-nkwa was adapted to ameliorate the exploitation of slaves, resulting in the proliferation of spiritual slaves immune to human violence in the community. The changing uses of Ohafia obu houses reflect the shifting dynamics of gendered power: the emergence of new forms of masculinity such as ogaranya redefined the gendered uses of slaves, shaped the introduction and modification of new exclusively-male secret societies such as okonko, and defined a new stage in the genered struggle for power — a period when men increasingly dominated long distance trade and women remained in control of domestic markets. These changes had different economic consequences for both men and women.

Moreover, first the British colonial government and later, the Nigerian government transformed some Ohafia obu houses like obu nkwa at Asaga, and obu ndi Anaga at Elu into national museums and cultural centers. The result is that while the patrilineage ududu kept in the obu were thus preserved and continue to survive as testament of a heroic age of male brave warriors, the matrilineage ududu customarily kept in the homes of Ohafia matriarchs have almost completely disappeared, as a result of successive missionary and indigenous converts’ religious zeal. The gender-differentiated preservation of Ohafia ududu reflect a larger historical trend: the loss of female power and authority at the turn of the twentieth century and the emergence of men in dominant socio-political positions in their society. In societies such as Ohafia where forms of masculinity are highly celebrated as tradition, the gendered preservation of history and memory impact how knowledge is produced and shape the individual rights of men and women. Ohafia-Igbo women’s consciousness of symbolic power is reflected in the fact that they began to use framed photographs of their ancestresses as substitutes for their destroyed ududu.


How do you see this work as challenging or adding to previous understandings of cultural change in Africa and in the larger Atlantic world?

How did continental African gender constructions shape understandings of gender in diaspora? How have social scientists portrayed the impact of Africa and Africans on the rest of the world? In studying African identity formation and history, do we privilege external or internal factors or both? This dissertation shows that by looking at internal historical processes and institutions within African societies in the precolonial period, it becomes clear that individual competition and self-realization was one of the most important factors for social change. This competition took various forms, but my dissertation examines the gendered struggles for power between and among men and women, and argues that constructing dynamic individual and collective identities for political purposes was a real and immediate necessity in both precolonial and colonial Africa. The gendered character of this identity formation based on individual  negotiations of social constraints, underlines the dramatic shift from a precolonial period characterized by more powerful and more effective female sociopolitical institutions, to a colonial period of male sociopolitical domination in southeastern Nigeria. The core questions that emerge from the Ohafia-Igbo context contribute extensively to the understanding of the production of power and its negotiation in human societies.

My dissertation reframes the scholarship on African gender studies, and makes significant contributions to anthropological and historical studies on African matriliny and slavery. It is a pioneer study of the construction, production, contestation, and transformation of African masculinities in the precolonial period and the first study on masculinities in southeastern Nigeria. My work gives voice to Ohafia-Igbo women, whose power and agency in the precolonial period has been obscured, and and rather than use men as a back-drop for the examination of women’s experiences, it re-centers Igbo men as gendered actors within the anthropological and historical literature. Thus, it demonstrates that masculinity and femininity are mutually constitutive, and marries the scholarship on African women with masculinity studies.

“Emergent Masculinities” reconciles a major dilemma in African studies, namely, the relationship between individualism and social constraints, agency and consciousness in the face of internal influences such as sociopolitical organization, migrations and warfare, slave raiding and head-hunting; and external influences such as the Atlantic slave trade, British colonialism, Christian missionary evangelism, and Western education. It demonstrates the impact of structures of power on individuals, as well as collective and individual agency and consciousness in the formation and transformation of indigenous institutions and cultural practices, and in the resistance to, and accommodation and adaptation of new ideas. For instance, as opposed to the traditional view of lineages as corporate groups or structures, this dissertation argues that lineages were practices. It was people’s practices — the proclivity of association and belongingness, organization and attendance of meetings at various levels of the lineage, gift-giving and recirpocity, rituals, and politics — that constituted lineages in the first place, and continue to give lineage its meaning. This is what the 19th century Prussian-born American anthropologist, Franz Boaz called the “genius of the people.” Thus, Emile Durkheim argued that the origin of institutions does not explain their functions; rather, the meaning of institutions should be sought in synchronic practices. Hence, matriliny was a prominent domain of contestation between Ohafia men and women, and later between missionaries, colonial officials and the local populace. Understanding “agency and power” in this context requires a Foucaultian view of power as situational, in flux, and manifest in discourses and effective practices.

A similar approach is taken in examining the impact of indegenous cultural practices and gender constructions on slave production for the Atlantic market as well as the impact of the Atlantic economy on indigenous institutional transformations and the emergence of new forms of ufiem. This is also seen in the analysis of 20th century transformations in Ohafia gendered distribution of power. The gradual disempowerment of women is inseparable from the processes through which men themselves came to dominate significant spheres of authority between 1900 and 1920. Colonialism, Christianity, and Western education became new frontiers for gendered contestation of power. Ohafia men often colluded with European officials and missionaries to forge patriarchal, exploitative, and discriminatory ideologies that facilitated the subjugation of women.The gendered character of missionary and colonial education policies enabled Ohafia men, not women, to emerge as the new elite who filled the ranks of teachers, clerks, interpreters, and accountants in the colonial economy. These “emergent masculinities” used their wealth to reconfigure various forms of ufiem, and sough to redefine gendered access to sociopolitical positions in society. Evidence from a rich collection of oral interviews and participant observation show that women individually and collectively utilized various indigenous institutions, cultural symbols, mediums, and spaces to resist disempowerment and negotiate new forms of privilege and power during this period. Significantly, the expression of female power and authority in this later period increasingly took the form of dramatizing ufiem — the performance of female masculinities. As Ohafia men increasingly marginalized women from the dominant sociopolitical spaces in their community, resulting in a rigidified gender system, Ohafia women cast as they were in a ‘subaltern’ mode, sought through their struggles, to open up the rules governing inclusion, thereby redefining dominant culture.


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